By Adam Pack
A handful of bills are making their way through the West Virginia legislature which seek to alter some of the ways in which state parks and lands go about the building of facilities and amenities, as well as alter code regarding certain vehicles within state parks and, by extension, on certain trails.
The first bill to reach the floor for a vote in either house was House Bill 4408. If passed and signed into law, this bill states that the Director of the DNR will be able to enter into contracts for up to 50 years for the “financing, construction, and operation of recreational, lodging, and ancillary facilities to all West Virginia State Parks, Forests and state Rail Trails.” A similar Senate Bill, SB 485, differs only in that it stipulates that all construction falling under the aforementioned amenities be exclusively new construction.
This would mean that the Greenbrier River Trail, as it is under the auspices of the State Parks of West Virginia, could be affected by this legislation. In opposition to the bill the West Virginians for Public Lands Association has spoken up. In a fact sheet posted to www.wvrivers.org, the Association voiced concerns about vagueness in the terms in the bill. “There is no code provision to restrict the type of new facilities allowed. Casinos, racetracks, amusement parks, or similar developments could be built on our state parks and state forests.”
However, James Bailey, Deputy Secretary and General Counsel for the Department of Commerce (which houses the Division of Natural Resources), appeared before both the Senate and House committees to speak in favor of the bills. He played down fears of such facilities being built, saying they were “unrealistic.” He added that the Director of the DNR reports to the Dept. of Commerce, and that significant contracts would need the approval of both that department and the Governor.
House Bill 4408 passed both the House Agriculture & Natural Resources and Government Organization Committees and was brought to the house floor for first reading on Thursday, Feb. 24. Before the final vote, three amendments to the bill were proposed by three separate house delegates. Delegates Fast, Fleischauer, and Hansen proposed amendments which would specify that Off-Road Vehicles and ATVs and the construction of casinos would be barred from state parks and trails. All three of these amendments were defeated.
Delegates voicing opposition to this bill spoke of their concerns with the lack of “guardrails” around the legislation, the lack of which could potentially allow the construction of casinos, amusement parks, and ATV trails and facilities on existing state park lands and trails. Opposition delegates said that they very much felt that allowing private investment in parks could be a positive development, but that certain protections had to be put in place. They argued that the importance of protecting state parks and lands was paramount to them and they didn’t want to see those community assets lost. Members also claimed that while they trusted the current leadership of the state’s Tourism Department and Division of Natural Resources not to make contracts to build such facilities or do lasting damage to parks or trails, they could not be confident of those who will occupy those offices in the future. Delegates in opposition also agreed on the time scale of the investments allowed in the bill. They claimed that 50-year contracts were unnecessary and would hold parts of public parks in the hands of private investors for too long.
Delegates who were in support of the bill argued that certain state parks have already been using a system of private contractual agreements for the construction of facilities for some time, and no such inappropriate buildings had been built to date. On the contrary, supporters claimed, those parks have benefitted from the “economic empowerment” of an infusion of private capital through investment. Delegates cited the recent contract between Pipestem State Park and ACE Adventures and the success it has had. Further to that point, delegates argued that passing this legislation would increase the viability, accessibility, and affordability of the parks as they will be more profitable and require less taxpayer money to maintain. As to the fears of ORVs/ATVs and casinos, delegates in support said that in the first place, the construction of a casino anywhere in West Virginia is subject to great deal of competition, a roll call vote in the state’s legislature, and would then require the governor’s signature. Secondly, as the state parks fall under the Parks and Recreation Department of the DNR, any buildings on state parks would be subject the codes dealing with the scope of Parks and Recreation, the language of which precludes any notion of ATVs, ORVs, Casinos, Amusement Parks, or any such irrelevant building and activities.
Local Delegates Todd Longanacre and Mike Honaker both voted in favor of the bill, which passed the house by a vote of 77-20. House Bill 4408 now moves to the Senate, where it will go through the same process again.
Other bills of importance to local trail goers are Senate Bill 563 and House Bill 4582.
Senate Bill 563 will empower the director of the DNR to designate portions of public lands under the jurisdiction of the DNR as suitable for “dispersed camping.” Dispersed camping is defined by the bill as campers camping in “small parties, at undeveloped sites without tent pads, water lines, or waste facilities who must adhere to ‘leave-no-trace’ policies.” This bill would provide that the DNR Director could declare a portion of DNR property to be fit for dispersed camping, then issuing stamps to existing hunting or fishing licenses, similar to trout stamps. These stamps would last for 12 months.
House Bill 4582 is a bill to clarify current West Virginia Code as it pertains to “E-Bikes,” bicycles which have an electric motor, and their use at state parks and trails. As of now, bikes which can propel themselves exclusively by electricity are entirely banned from state parks and state park trails. This would mean that Class 1 and 3 E-Bikes are allowed on trails but Class 2 E-Bikes are not. Class 2 E-Bikes are capable of either assisting the rider with electric pedal assist or of propelling with an electric motor without pedal assist. Both Class 1 and Class 2 E-Bikes cease any electric motor function at 20mph. Class 3 E-Bikes do so at 28mph, but only run the motor when pedal-assisted by the rider. Currently the Greenbrier River Trail allows the use of Class 1 E-bikes on the trail, and does not permit Class 2 and 3 E-Bikes. If HB 4582 were to pass and be signed into law, Class 1 and 2 E-Bikes would be allowed on state parks and trails, including The Greenbrier River Trail, but Class 3 E-Bikes would continue to not be permitted.
In reference to these bills, Senator Stephen Baldwin said in a March 3 Town Hall meeting that they are “significantly concerning.” He further specified his dissatisfaction with this spate of bills as pertains to trails, saying “our trails are very important to the people of this state, especially to our area. It’s good to have trails for ATV and vehicles; it’s good to have trails for horses; it’s good to have trails for walking. We need to also be very clear about which is which.”